English Premier League officials are expected to make a decision on a new U.S. media deal shortly after bidders make their final offers on Thursday, whereupon things are about to get uncharacteristically quiet on the sports-rights circuit. Once the soccer import locks in its stateside arrangements—a final determination could come in time for incumbent NBC to make an announcement during its Thanksgiving broadcast of the Bills-Saints game—TV networks and streaming services will have a few years to survey the landscape before the market heats up again with the likes of NASCAR (2024) and the NBA (2025).
The lull should provide an opportunity for Big Media to reassess some of the more volatile projections about the state of linear TV as it stands in relation to the not-ready-for-primetime streaming platforms. If nothing else, the hiatus gives the biggest rights holders the luxury of time, an interval in which they might gain a clearer understanding of how all the elements of the hybrid distribution machine are meant to work together. In some respects, committing to a multiyear, multi-billion-dollar rights deal in the your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine media marketplace may be seen as wildly presumptive, akin to picking out names for your babies while swiping desultorily through Tinder.
For international juggernauts like the Premier League, there’s not nearly as much call to agonize over the future of media. For one thing, Europe’s wealthiest professional sports syndicate is about to make itself richer still, as the new U.S. rights package is expected to bring in some $2 billion. That would effectively double what NBC parent Comcast agreed to plunk down when the company renewed its exclusive EPL contract in 2015.
While the players that remain in contention for a Premier League partnership may have to sweat things out a bit as officials make their final decision, the only thing that should be keeping up NBC Sports Group chairman Pete Bevacqua is the exclusivity factor. Unless our English cousins were to succumb to a particularly virulent strain of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, it’s all but impossible to imagine that they’d elect to part ways with NBC after a decade-long partnership. For one thing, NBC’s EPL production is top notch, and the league itself is quite pleased with the quality of the U.S. broadcasts. Furthermore, the matches that aired on the flagship network last season averaged 879,000 viewers a pop, up 2% versus the year-ago period, during which overall TV usage declined by nearly 10%.
More to the point, NBC is more than willing to absorb the cost of continuing its association with the Premier League. Having just lost the NHL to ESPN and Turner Sports, NBC can’t afford to see a second prestige partner waltz out the door. As much as English soccer doesn’t command the towering ratings of the NFL or Olympics, the EPL is all about cumulative GRPs, or gross ratings points. Impressions really begin to add up across as the season progresses; over the course of the 2020-21 campaign, NBC Sports aired 340 match windows, which works out to 914 hours on live coverage and studio programming.
Of course, almost nobody in the U.S. ever got rich on soccer, and NBC’s no exception. Since the current season got underway in West London on Aug. 13, the league has generated fewer than $8 million in total ad sales for the NBC networks, a figure that includes inventory sold during the shoulder programming. A standard Sunday Night Football broadcast will rake that in before the completion of the third ad break.
If the streamlined structure of soccer has always made the sport a tough sell here in the U.S.—the lack of in-match ad breaks probably thwarted soccer’s growth in the 1970s more effectively than did baseball’s hegemonic grip on pre-cable America—NBC’s obvious enthusiasm for the EPL goes a long way toward explaining why the feeling is reciprocated. This is not to say that the Premier League doesn’t throw off any cash; for one thing, another six years of Chelsea/West Ham/Liverpool/Man City action will only serve to boost distribution revenue on the cable end.
With NBCSN set to close shop on New Year’s Eve, the bulk of the televised matches will switch over to USA Network. Not only does that ensure a broader base of potential fans, as USA reaches 80.5 million TV homes, but the addition of premium sports content should provide the necessary leverage for Comcast to further elevate the network’s affiliate revenue. Per Kagan, a division of S&P Global Market Intelligence, USA’s average sub fee is $1.68 per household per month, which works out to around $1.63 billion in annual distribution. By comparison, USA this year is on pace to take in nearly $600 million in advertising revenue. As NASCAR races, the Tour de France and Atlantic 10 college basketball migrate to USA alongside the EPL, those commercial dollars will rise accordingly. (Even soccer’s relatively limited ad sales numbers will get a boost by virtue of USA’s wider reach.)
For NBC and legions of domestic Premier League fans, the only unknown variable would seem to be the exclusivity angle. Although the EPL would seem to have made the decision to share the wealth back in September when it didn’t automatically act on NBC’s renewal option, Comcast may be able to retain its grip on the entire package if it agrees to double its current rights payment. If $2 billion is too rich for Comcast’s blood (and it’s probably worth noting here that the cable colossus has a market cap of $242.7 billion), then a B package is likely to be carved out for one of the suitors who put in a competing bid before the Thursday deadline.
A handful of media outlets (Fox, Turner Sports, Disney, ViacomCBS) are expected to make a final overture to the Premier League, with the latter two having been approved to put in a joint bid. A successful tandem effort by ESPN and CBS would serve as an affirmation of both outlets’ ongoing show of enthusiasm for soccer, as Bristol this spring picked up the rights to carry Spanish LaLiga matches, while CBS’ recent spree includes pickups of Italy’s Serie A and the UEFA Champions League.
However things shake out, the rights skirmish suggests that soccer may be poised to make a great leap forward in the U.S. Sharing the wealth among network partners may be just the thing to help expand the Premier League’s popularity.
That said, more than a few commentators across the pond now seem rather convinced that the EPL is on the verge of dethroning the NFL as America’s most beloved sports organization. Slow your roll, Ted Lasso.